[BA in Political Science, minors in Int’l Affairs & Gender Studies, Northeastern University (2015)
International Law and Human Rights MA candidate, UN-mandated University for Peace (anticipated June 2017)]
2016 has certainly been a year for the books. Although we’ve made great strides as a world to tackle issues regarding visibility around various points of inequality, we’ve also experienced great losses and unprecedented political shifts. Among the highlights of this year is the death of Fidel Castro, an adored revolutionary leader for some as well as a hated power-hungry tyrant for many. His death was mourned by the Cuban state government with various memorials referencing his world-famous educational and healthcare reforms. Some 90 miles away, the historic Cuban-American community in Miami, FL celebrated in a cathartic release of decades’ worth of resentment and pain from the displacement and separation his regime caused from its inception in 1959.
I am a second-generation Cuban-American, a proud feminist Latina. I am a product of the Cuban diaspora and a daughter of a political prisoner. My father spent almost a decade during his 20s in prison for “counter-revolutionary charges,” which included unverified claims of participating in a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro, and for selling perfume which was prohibited as Castro did away with the private sector. Just as Jewish refugees who fled World War II pass the pain and trauma of the Holocaust across generations, the Cuban community in Miami have passed down countless stories underlined by agony, laced with nostalgia to younger generations. Many of us in Miami have never been to our ancestral Cuba, yet our heads are filled with endless stories of our abuelo’s farm with plump cows and rolling pastures in Viñales, or our abuela’s walk-up apartment in Havana with a view of El Malecón (the famous sea wall). This is a Cuba time and again we’re told that we will never know, because of ese malvado hijo de puta (malicious son of a whore) Fidel Castro.
This will not be your run-of-the-mill “Viva Cuba Libre” speech that you’d hear from your Cuban parents and grandparents. As a student of political science, I can’t afford to give in to the simplistic Miami narrative that says “Cuba was perfectly fine, Castro happened, and then the country was ruined.” Maybe for the white Cubans who left, things were fine; but for many marginalized people of color and poor white rural Cubans, things were not fine. Chronic poverty was hovering around 30%, racial and gender inequality was rampant, exacerbated by the feudalistic socio-economic system left as a legacy by the Spanish colonizers. The end of the United State’s Good Neighbor Policy towards the end of the 1930s led the US to justify repeated interventions in Latin American politics, especially to thwart the growing presence of USSR-influenced communist ideology. After the US’s victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Cuban politics lent itself to instability. This resulted in a line of corrupt puppet presidents appointed by the US who did nothing to address the rampant economic and social ills which defined pre-Castro Cuba.
Fidel Castro, and his brother Raúl allied themselves with Ché Guevara, an Argentine doctor looking for an adventure who eventually entangled himself with what would be known as the Cuban Revolution. The 26th of July movement of 1953 established Fidel Castro as the charismatic, determined foe to an indifferent government led by US-appointed military dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista essentially turned the Cuban economy over to American companies and organized crime syndicates, while silencing opposition through brutal means. Marginalized Cuban people from all walks of life were invigorated by Fidel’s fiery rhetoric and promises to return Cuba back to the Cuban people. Batista was finally ousted on the January 1st, 1959. And the rest is history.
Or is it? The left and right media present us with two radically different depictions of how Castro rose to the occasion to deliver to the Cuban people what he promised. The talking points of leftist media emphasize that Cuba made important advances under Castro in the progressive realization of some economic, social, and cultural rights such as education and healthcare. For example, UNESCO has stated that there is near 100% literacy on the island; UNICEF has declared that the country is on track to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals. The right wing media will emphasize how respect for education and healthcare goals was never met with respect for civil liberties, particularly those concerned with free speech and property rights. Under Fidel Castro’s rule, the Cuban government was reluctant on various levels to acknowledge the legitimacy of Cuban human rights organizations, alternative political parties, independent labor unions, and above all, a free press.
Reactions to his death have been predictably marked along these lines, including within myself. It’s a strange feeling inside, for example, knowing that as a woman in Cuba I have much more control over my reproductive rights than I currently do in the United States. Although I declined to get an IUD at a hospital in Holguín because of the decrepit state of the facility, the fact is that with a phone call and my Cuban accent alone, I was eligible to get one if I wanted to. Cultural and religious stigmas are absent as a result of the communist revolution, so as a consequence women can also seek contraceptives and abortions free of questions and judgment should they want or need them. I can also count on seeing my gender represented at higher rates in the Cuban government than the United States itself can boast. The Cuban Congressional Assembly counts with at least 45% of women represented, compared to the paltry 17% that the US boasts in its respective Congress.
But at what cost though? I’ve been concerned seeing various reactions on the Left praising Fidel Castro as being “complex,” exonerating him from his gross human rights violations with justifications such as “he brought healthcare and education,” and “he stood up to US imperialism.” Was Nikita Khrushchyov "standing up to American imperialism" when he sent the Red Army into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring and then into Budapest to kill thousands of Hungarians? Pinochet's economic policies, while they had some role in shaping Chile's present status as arguably the most stable, wealthy, and democratic country in Latin America, do not absolve him of his brutal crackdowns on thousands of dissenting voices, and the disappearance of many more. Ironically, many of those most likely to idolize Castro are far removed from the reality of his rule.
In order for the Cuban people to secure equality, they’ve had to forfeit the three rights they are entitled to as human beings: life, liberty, and the right to private property. Castro spent the last years of his rule reversing a partial liberalization. To the end he also imprisoned or persecuted anyone who suggested Cubans could benefit from freedom of speech or the right to vote. Castro jailed more political prisoners proportionally by population than Adolf Hilter and Joseph Stalin, and for three times as long. According to the Harvard-published “Black Book of Communism,” Castro executed 14,000 detainees by firing squad. They ranged in age from 16 to 68 years old and included several women, at least one of them pregnant. According to the scholars and researchers at the Cuba Archive, his regime’s total death toll from torture, prison beatings, machine gunning of escapees, drowning comes to more than 112,000 people. According to Freedom House, 500,000 Cubans have been tortured in his gulag and torture chambers. Political prisoners still languish in his regime’s prisons for quoting Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Castro is also a man who has been internationally lauded for supporting anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa alongside Nelson Mandela, and shaking hands with African-American civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X. Why would he help to relieve inequality elsewhere, but not for his own people?
His record on LGBT rights is also dubious. In the eyes of Castro and his revolutionary comrade Che Guevara, who is famous for referring to gay men as maricones (faggots), homosexuality was inherently counter-revolutionary. According to the traditional Latin American machista narrative which portrayed homosexuality in a negative light, it was treated as politically undesirable. Gays, alongside Christians, writers, and other political “undesirables” were thrown into concentration camps. Only in the 21st century has Mariela Castro, Fidel’s daughter, emerged as an LGBT activist, responding to the evolution of identity politics which has successfully raised LGBT civil rights on the platform of the global left. No matter how much life for gay Cubans might have improved from the days of forced labor camps, their lives are all still existing within the vacuum of a totalitarian society whose citizens cannot vote, are denied basic civil liberties like the right to speak or protest freely. Lamentably, they cannot form organizations independent of the government to address specific details of the diverse LGBT community that may not be covered under the highly arbitrary and hypocritical judgment of the Castro’s regime.
Fidel Castro’s legacy also includes an economically devastated nation. A point of frustration is when it became obvious that his communist economic system had impoverished his country, he refused all his life to abandon that system, propping up an economic system where professionals like doctors must moonlight as taxi drivers and waiters in order to supplement their measly state-controlled salary ($20 to $40 a month) with tips. A medical specialist I know in Holguín is reduced to bartering with his patients in exchange for appointments and services. Raúl, upon being transferred power from Fidel in 2008, has enacted a series of lukewarm liberal reforms to the economy which have allowed for the ownership and sale of some private property and small business. However, the reforms pale in comparison to the needs and demands of the modern global economy to ensure everyone an equal opportunity to define success on their own terms.
The merits of the Cuban socialist revolution, such as universal healthcare and near-universal literacy, should be attributed to true victims and heroes of the Cuban Revolution: the Cuban people, who have made the decision to triumph in spite of Castro's oppressive measures. Racism and sexism are still very real problems in Cuban society, mostly exacerbated under the desperation brought on by a stale ideological movement that has economically devastated Cuba. Dictators cannot be looked at exclusively through their rhetoric. Castro's defiance against hypocritical American foreign policy and rhetoric about socialism and economic equality do not absolve him of his grave sins.
We must demand more of our leaders; accepting torture and suppression for the exchange of equality under the law is never a good bargain.
Ibis Valdés is a proud Latina and women's rights advocate.
Originally from Miami, FL of Cuban descendence, she graduated with a BA in Political Science with minors in International Relations and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Ibis began her career in feminist activism circa 2011 after experiencing social isolation and unfairly bureaucratic treatment from her university when she reported sexual abuse. She found solace and most importantly her voice in a community of like-minded peers who worked tirelessly to raise awareness on a grass-roots level across the United States.
As Director of Communications of the Feminist Student Organization at NEU, she was invited to participate in an interview in 2013 which appeared in the documentary "The Hunting Ground." The song "'Til It Happens To You," contributed to the film by Lady Gaga was nominated for an Oscar in 2016, launching the film to worldwide acclaim. Gaga's team invited Ibis and others to join Lady Gaga and Vice President Joe Biden onstage in order to raise awareness worldwide about college sexual assault.
She has since then contributed to various TV and print interviews including Univisión and Buzzfeed in order to further disseminate the message.
Ibis is currently working towards her Master's in International Law and Human Rights at University for Peace in Costa Rica.